The Silver Lady of Garynahine

From the Stornoway Gazette, 2 August 1960 and subsequent editions.

White Lady Startles Drivers:  a Garynahine Ghost Story

The “Garynahine Ghost,” which promised to be Lewis’s best authenticated spectre to date, has turned out to be a false alarm.  Several motorists had reported startling encounters near Garynahine Bridge with a tall woman, dressed in white to her toes, and carrying a staff, who suddenly loomed up in the light of their headlamps.  Drivers who braked and stopped said that the “white lady” peered in at them before vanishing into the night.

Among the first witnesses was SAC Keith Hodges, of RAF Uig, who saw the lady while driving back to camp from Stornoway on a Saturday night.  He said later – “It was a strange sight to see a woman, all in white, walking the road after 11pm.  I braked hard and she stared in at us.  Her face was white and expressionless.  I think she was wearing a black belt.”

One of his passengers, Cpl A Cox, said he and his friends has got “quite a fright”.  “This thing loomed up in front of us and then stopped at the side of the Landrover, peering in at us.  I don’t might telling you I got a scare.  We didn’t wait to see anything else, but drove off as fast as we could.  Our only idea at the time was to get out of it smartly.”

With them was SAC A Galbraith, who said – “Of course we got a fright.  She was dressed all in shining white and it looked very queer.”

Just ahead of the RAF Landrover was the RAF bus, most of the occupants of which were more than half convinced that they had seen a ghost.  The lady, whom they later christened “The Silver Lady”, stood motionless as the bus sped past.  Some of the airmen declared that she was surrounded by an eerie glow.

Mr Angus Macleod, Perceval Road, Stornoway, was the next to report an encounter with the strange lady.  “I was coming down from Uig about 11.10pm,” he said, “when I saw this woman coming towards me in the middle of the road.  She was dressed in a long gown, but it wasn’t white.  It had a kind of floral design.  She was carrying a stick, and she seemed to hold it up in front of the car, though I didn’t feel it touching the vehicle.  When I slowed down she stared in at me, and although it looked as if her lips were smiling, the rest of her face wasn’t.  I felt a cold shiver down my spine, and I still feel it every time I think about it.”

Theories about the Cave of Swords

A mysterious cave full of swords was once discovered on Mealisval, but the could not be found again.  Dave Roberts gave the story of the discovery of the cave in an article for Uig News and here gives a range of possible explanations.

In the Iron Age (2000 years ago) people often deposited weapons made of bronze or iron into water. They also built and used underground passage ways – thought by some to have been routes to the ‘underworld’. In Orkney there are a number of manmade shafts with steps that lead downwards into the ground. Some of these have water in, and could have been wells, but others have no permanent water in the bottom. Could the Mealaisbhal cave with its staircase, be an Iron Age route to the underworld, and were the swords an offering to the gods?

Other people have suggested that the swords are more recent than that. Perhaps they have a connection to a famous and desperate fugitive from justice, who lived in the Uig hills in the mid-nineteenth century. In the stories, Mac an t-Sronaich was supposed to be a very violent man who threatened, accosted and even murdered people. The official records however suggest that this was a gross distortion of the truth. Did he have an arsenal of weapons hidden in a cave? He is reputedly associated with just about every cave in Uig, and many much further afield. Many of the tales about him describe his aggression, but none make any reference to swords.

A much more convincing theory is that the cave was a hiding place in the period immediately after 16th April 1746. In the aftermath of Culloden, and the defeat of the Jacobite army under the command of Charles Edward Stuart – everything ‘Highland’ became forbidden. This included the wearing of the kilt and the bearing of arms. Many of the people hid their now illegal weapons wherever they could. Some secreted claymores in the thatch of their houses. Maybe the Uig upper-enders hid theirs in a cave on Mealaisbhal. Their weapons would have been totally undetectable, but quickly and easily accessible if the need arose.

Starting at Crowlista School

An extract from the unpublished memoirs of Rev Col AJ Mackenzie, son of the gamekeeper Roderick Mackenzie.  AJ was born in 1887 in Kinlochresort and moved with his family to the keeper’s house at Uig Lodge, where he began at Crowlista School.

In May 1892 after the spring holidays, I began my formal education. I had never been at school before except for one day at Kinlochresort when my mother sent me with the other boys thinking I would be happier at school, than alone by myself all day at home. I soon decided that I thought otherwise and as I did not show my enthusiasm to repeat the experience next day, I was not pressed to go any more. But now by law I was compelled to go to school and there was no evading it.

I set off in high spirits with the rest of the boys, buoyed up with their accounts of the joy of life at school. Hitherto I had only looked at the school from a distance and as I drew nearer I was conscious of a conflict of feelings. I began to feel that I was about to be swallowed up in something new and strange and that things would never be quite the same again. There were over a hundred pupils in the school at that time. It was in fact hopelessly over crowded, in the following year an extension was put to it, that was another thrill for us boys to see masons, joiners and painters at work.

I had never seen so many children together before, but what filled me with amazement was the amount of noise they made with their chattering. The master, obviously, had not come in yet. When he did, the scene underwent an astonishingly rapid transformation. He picked up a thick cane and gave half a dozen hard smacks with it on the blackboard. At that instance a dead silence fell on the school. I had never seen such behaviour before and I do not in the least exaggerate when I say I was not a little scared. It took me a little time to discover that our teacher, Mr Stevenson was not as terrifying a person as he appeared to be. The first day passed off uneventfully; the second was not so happy; and the third full of doubt and forebodings. The freedom I had so long enjoyed was gone unless I could do something to recover it.

The forth day was a historic one. I set out as usual with the others but when just out of sight of home I decided on my course of action. I sat down, and calmly announced to the boys that I was not going to school that day. Curiously they did not attempt to persuade me; they may have thought that a more effective authority would soon see that. The authority was soon forthcoming in the person of my mother. She evidently had a suspicion that I had something in my mind when I set out that morning, so she came out to see from the near hill if I was on my way over the moor path to school. Her unexpected appearance startled me, but in no way lessened my determination to make a bid to free myself from the obligations of school that day and for ever.

The One Night Shieling

One Night Shieling

From an article in Uig News by Dave Roberts.

It appears that shielings were constructed so that one airigh could easily be seen from another, but it is said that very often the girls from a number of shielings would sleep in one building for company. The ancient shieling grounds for Brenish, Islivig and Mangersta were way beyond Raonasgail valley, in the moors north of Loch Craobhaig, at Fidigidh. The people of Carnish had their shielings by Loch Raonasgail, and at Ceann Chuisil. There are also ruins of old shieling structures closer to home, west of Mealisval, Cracaval and Laival. In the late nineteenth, and into the twentieth century, shieling activity was largely restricted to these closer locations.

About half a mile from Tealasdale is one of the shieling grounds of Old Mangersta, situated north of Ron Beag and west of Loch Faorbh. At the west end of Tealasdale is Sgorr Reamher and Bealach nan Imrich – “the pass of the flitting”, and below the Sgorr is the ruin of a very large and well built airigh. It is marked clearly on the first edition ordnance survey map. Its location is not very inviting. It is sheltered from the easterly winds but not from the southwesterlies. Even in summer the sun does not reach it until well into the day. This is Airigh na h’Aon Oidhche – “the one night shieling”.

Wild Murdoch of Mealista Island

Mealista Island

Mealista Island (on the right) from above Molinish, with Scarp in the distance.

From “Various Superstitions in the North-West Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Especially in Relation to Lunacy” by Arthur Mitchell AM MD, Deputy Commissioner for Lunacy in Scotland, Corresponding Member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  From the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol IV, published in Edinburgh in 1862.  Excuse the non-pc approach:

There is a little island called Mealista, separated by a narrow seaway from the coast of Uig, without any permanent population, but to which, in former times, people resorted for the two or three summer months, to look after cows which they transported to it for the sake of pasturage.  Tradition says of this island that no one was every born on it who was not from birth insane, or who did not become so before death.  In the last generation, three persons had the misfortune for the first time to see the light of day on this unlucky spot, and all three were mad.¹  Of one of them, who is remembered by the name of Wild Murdoch, many strange stories are told.  It is said that his friends used to tie a rope around his body, make it fast to the stern of the boat, and then pull out to sea, taking the wretched man in tow.²

The story goes that he was so buoyant that he could not sink; that they “tried to press him down in the water”; that he could swim with a stone fastened to him; that when carried to the rocky holms of Mealista or Grianan, round which the open Atlantic surges, and left there alone, he took to the water, and swam ashore; and that, when bound hand and foot and left in a kiln, by a miracle of strength he broke his bonds and escaped.  It was thus they are said to have treated him during his fits of maniacal excitement; and there are many still alive [in 1862] who saw it all, and gave a helping hand. 

Macpherson the Wheelwright

The Flannans by rojabro

Photo by rojabro.

This isn’t strictly an Uig tale, though one episode takes place on the Flannans, and there is a suggestion that Macpherson may be the grandfather of Kenneth Macpherson the catechist from Bayhead, who married Ann Smith from Strome and Valtos and lived in Ness.   It’s offered in the hope that someone may be able to shed some light on the story, identify the house of the Misses Crighton, confirm or (more likely) dismiss the connections to the Bayhead family, or identify the source, which is presently unknown.  And it’s a good story.

MacPherson was from the East of Scotland, a wheelwright to trade, but he at times followed the sea and took some trips to Greenland as a whale fisher and those trips to the northern seas made him a little money. Mr MacPherson, owing to his trade, was advised by some Lewis gentlemen to come to Stornoway and commence both wheel making and spinning in a factory.

MacPherson decided to come to Lewis but at this time he had previously agreed to go on one more trip to Greenland as harpooner for a season. The ship sailed and the wheelwright/harpooner sailed with her. Some days before they arrived at the fishing ground they noticed a very large whale on the surface, which seemed to be asleep. The captain held a consultation with the ship’s company and said that if they were so successful as to kill that large whale and get her on board they might then return home, for she appeared a big enough whale to make a complete cargo for the ship. But the prudent captain also said that he would leave the decision to the ship’s company. The harpooners, nine in number, unanimously resolved to launch their boat and make a daring effort to kill this monstrously large whale.

They so far succeeded as to strike her with some of their harpoons and as soon as she had dived and they had paid out all their lines, they had to return to their ship with all possible speed. There they awaited impatiently the rising to the surface of the whale. But half an hour passed before she made her appearance and this she did on the very spot where she had disappeared. Her ferocious appearance now made the captain sing out to the crew to cut away all the lines and get clear of her as soon as they could, for her movements were awful and terrible. All hands were now at work, getting the ship clear of this awful monster of the deep, this formidable enemy. But the ship’s crew, with the exception of MacPherson, were to meet their destiny at this spot of water and, to accomplish the melancholy doom, the whale came close to the ship and by one tremendous stroke of its tail, she smashed the ship to pieces and so terrible was the shock that the monster gave to the ship that she sank in a few moments. All the ship’s crew, with the exception of MacPherson, went to a watery grave. MacPherson in his perilous situation, shipped himself on a large piece of the quarter deck and as he found this raft separate from the rest of the wreck, he salvaged some provisions which were floating upon the water. He also obtained a boat’s oar which he used to steer the raft, having lashed himself for safely.

The Viking Princess and the Seeing Stone

Gradhag's Pool

Lewis tradition maintains that the Brahan Seer was born in Uig, in the vicinity of Baile na Cille, and that his powers of second sight came from a seeing stone he found there.  Dolly Doctor gives the following account in Tales and Traditions, based on the version told in the Uig ceilidh-houses:

Kenneth’s mother was watching the flocks by night, and as she sat on Cnoc Eothail, which looks down on the ancient mound [the cemetery at Baile na Cille] and commands a wide view of sea and moorland and mountain, she occupied her time by spinning with her distaff and spindle.  As she watched her flock, looking over the graveyard, she saw the graves open and the ancient mound became thronged with a great concourse of spirits.  Then one and all sallied into the stilly night in all directions.  Before cock-crow the spirits returned, fluttering into their own places, and then she noticed one grave was still open.  The old lady decided to watch for the late-comer and put her distaff across the open grave, and at last she saw the spirit approaching from the ocean regions to the north.  In a moment a vision of beauty stood before her, and a young woman, graceful as a fawn, ‘golden-haired and fair as the young morn’, entreated the old lady to allow her entrance.  She refused to do so unless the spirit would tell her who she was and where she had been.